The New Energy in Detroit

Recently, I was downtown and walked to two separate meetings in two different locations. As I was enjoying the stroll and the weather, I noticed the constant humming of activity–from construction noise to the number of people walking near Campus Martius.

Clearly, there’s an energy and vibe downtown which, to longtime Detroiters, has been lacking.

During my walk, I noticed:

  • a number of young people soaking in the activity and enjoying the midday sunshine,
  • an outdoor, carnival-like atmosphere with food trucks, pedestrian traffic, a “piano” man entertaining walkers, bikers/skateboarders and those simply having lunch outdoors,
  • historical buildings whose facades are being gutted and renovated in preparation for new tenants, and
  • people actually blowing their car horns because of vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

This part of downtown actually felt like an emerging New York or Chicago–two cities where I used to live. However, I was born and raised in Detroit and its surrounding areas.

And this downtown transformation is unlike anything I’ve experienced here.
During the late 60’s and 70’s, the face of downtown workers included men and women in business suits carrying briefcases. Truly “white collar” professionals working and supporting the auto companies, lawyers, dentists and other similar professions. During the 80’s and 90’s, downtown was moribund. It was lacking activity, energy and vitality and, in fact, some would suggest it was dying.

And people and businesses were moving out.

Not anymore.

As I walked across downtown to the RenCen for another meeting, I was asking how this transformation happened?

I believe it started decades ago with a vision among business and civic leaders. A vision focused on having a dynamic urban core where people could live, work and play.

In fact, Ilitch Holdings started investing in the 1980’s by moving his Little Caesar’s enterprise downtown, renovating the Fox theater and building Comerica Park, et al. In 2003, Peter Karmanos followed suit by building its then corporate headquarters, Compuware, and moving 4000 employees from the suburbs to the city. And since that time, Dan Gilbert has purchased approximately 70 buildings, is investing over $1 billion and has moved several thousand associates from his myriad of companies across the region downtown. By doing so, those working downtown is changing. It appears to be a technology-driven, younger, diverse and somewhat “urban cool” workforce with swag interspersed with other professional working in the core, which makes for an interesting mix.

With an increase in the number of employees, businesses follow. More restaurants and entertainment options are now popping up and down Woodward and points in-between.

Imagine what will happen when the M-1 rail project starts running in early 2017 and connects downtown to the midtown area followed by the Detroit District–specifically, the Red Wings arena slated for completion later that year?

Now, how is this momentum going to be carried into the neighborhoods?

The challenge is to find this “magic potion”, bottle it up and sprinkle across all neighborhoods. There’s still a lot of discussion of expanding this renaissance across the entire city. I believe there needs to be a continued push for entrepreneurship and small business development in the neighborhoods while focusing on job creation. Quite frankly, jobs are infiltrating Detroit’s sprawling neighborhoods at a slower pace than other parts of the city. If a neighborhood strategy is developed and there’s a continued push for training and development by companies and incubator programs, then there’s a better chance all Detroiters will benefit from this more “real” renaissance. Until this happens, there will be a continued gap–whether perceptual or real.

However, back to my downtown experience. As I was leaving a meeting at RenCen, the power went out right before I got on the elevator and had to walk down 17 flights of stairs. On my way back to my car, I ran into an ex-student of mine who graduated from EMU in April. He explained to me he was happy to land a job downtown and is really enjoying the experience. Then he opened my eyes with the following comment, “I really like working down here (downtown) because of the energy and it’s cool.” He continued, “I’m thinking about moving downtown because there’s so much for people like to me do compared to where I live now.”

While there was a power outage in several buildings recently, clearly there’s a power surge driving a jolt in the heart of the Motor City.

Let’s hope this momentum continues and fans out across the rest of the city.